Antisocial networking

As a skeptic and, for the most part, a confessed non-user of them, you might think I wouldn’t touch discussions of social-networking systems with the proverbial ten-foot pole, and ordinarily you’d probably be right. But it’s past time for me to acknowledge that while the discourse of social networking may at first blush seem marginal to my core concerns, it’s far more central to those concerns than I might wish.

There is an increasing demand that the urban-computing applications and other situated services I do care about incorporate a social-networking element – in other words, that they use technical architectures to mediate relationships between people – and that brings the field squarely into my sights. Readers of Everyware, of this site, of just about every word I’ve ever written or uttered in public will know that one of my primary concerns has always been that we not accede to the heedless restructuring of everyday human relations on inappropriate and clumsy models derived from technical systems – and yet, that’s a precise definition of social networking as currently instantiated.

The putatively most-advanced sectors of opinion within the social-networking community of interest offer pleas that such functionality be “portable” and “open” – that is, that the profiles and relationships that you establish in one service not be locked up in a walled garden, and that each such service use a common and publicly-available schema to describe relationship dynamics.

Anybody who has ever invested the time and energy in building an extensive social profile on Friendster or Orkut, only to be faced with doing it all over again when the exigencies of community necessitate a jump to Facebook, will understand that there’s some justice to these complaints. Similar things could be said for the difficulties faced when different services diverge in the way they construct intimacy gradients, forcing users to parse the occult differences between one service’s “contact” and another’s “buddy.” So as far as they go, those people calling for openness and portability in social-networking schemas are not wrong.

What these commentators do not or cannot admit, though, is that the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is broken – and not just a little broken, but badly so. All social-networking systems, as currently designed, demonstrably create social awkwardnesses that did not, and could not, exist before. All social-networking systems constrain, by design and intention, any expression of the full band of human relationship types to a very few crude options – and those static! A wiser response to them would be to recognize that, in the words of the old movie, “the only way to win is not to play.”

Now that’s a pretty bold assertion, and I don’t expect you to accept it without some evidence. The following admittedly amount to arguments from personal experience, of the common-sense type that seems to fly out the window (or be consciously deprecated) the moment any discussion of technical systems is entertained; nevertheless, I’m willing to bet you’ll not merely recognize these descriptions, but regard them as fundamentally accurate.

Consider the three non-family friends you regard as being your closest, most trusted and intimate companions. Would the overlap in what you would share and do with each of them be total – that is, would you share precisely the same set of information around personal experiences with each of them? Every social-networking system that I am aware of forces you to do just that.

Consider your feelings about a single, reasonably close friend. In the last six months, have your feelings about this person undergone any change whatsoever? Have they done something unexpected that charmed you, made you feel closer to them in some functional way that might necessitate an update to their explicitly-articulated status? Conversely, have they failed to pick up a tab, breached a confidence, or otherwise dropped some obligation that forced you to regard them – temporarily or permanently – as less trustworthy, less of a friend? (How about in the last six minutes?)

Consider how much of your social life is built on, and derives its robustness from, very common patterns like someone you’re attracted to but dislike temperamentally, someone you care for but have little in common with, someone your connection to is primarily based on nostalgia and loyalty, a reliable show- or workout buddy you wouldn’t otherwise keep in touch with or someone you simply wished you knew better – and then try to contain these sentiments meaningfully in the penurious few options you’re offered by the social-networking application of your choice.

Consider your own past use of social-networking systems: how many times have they inadvertently caused some tension, misunderstanding, or regret between you and someone you care about, either one-way or running in both directions? How many times have you added someone as a “friend” and been hurt when they did not reciprocate, or had to deny someone’s apparently appropriate request for friending…and then been forced to spend time writing them an email explaining why? How many times have you felt obligated to add someone you simply didn’t know very well?

Consider XFN, the “simple way to represent human relationships using hyperlinks” which has been adopted by the popular discussion site MetaFilter to characterize connections between its 50,000-odd members. What’s problematic about this? Well, for starters, the quite forthright imposition of values in the XFN schema itself:

Positive or neutral relationships only.

Negative relationship terms have been omitted from XFN by design. The authors think that such values would not serve a positive ends and thus made the deliberate decision to leave them out. Such terms (we won’t even bother naming them here) while mildly entertaining in a dark humor sort of way, only serve to propagate negativity.

The authors do not deny that such negative relationships exist in the real world today. Of course they exist. However, we see no need nor benefit to standardizing such relationships and capturing them in a form which would spread on the Web. There is enough hatred in the world. We should work to eliminate hatred, not to spread it.

And we do realize that by creating XFN and the mechanisms it uses (XMDP), we have opened a Pandora’s box, and have made it easier for those that would create and propagate negative relationships. We can only hope that our positive creation wins out over any such negative creations.

Nice sentiments, surely. And I do mean nice: tepid, distinction-obliterating, mealy-mouthed. Due to “well-intentioned” decisions made at design time, embedded and incorporated by reference in any- and everything it will be used for, it’s impossible to use XFN to model anything that even remotely resembles an organic human community. I passionately believe that this reductive stance is not merely wrong, but profoundly wrong, in that it deliberately aims to bleed away all the nuance, complication and complexity that makes any real relationship what it is. Any site or service that uses XFN or anything conceived along similar lines not merely betrays its users, but insults them.

How can any community cohere if it cannot express those tensions and dislikes, internal and external, that animate and give vigor to expressions of affinity? How are we to construct our identities in the world if we are limited to x and denied the use of not-x – when the world suggests precisely that part of what makes Orangemen is that they are not-Republicans, that Hamas sympathizers understand themselves to be not-Fatah, that vegetarians are not-meateaters, that San Franciscans are not-Angelenos? This isn’t (just) the narcissism of small differences, it’s definitive of identity in a very deep way.

So is the answer simply to model human relations more granularly? To offer users sliders, or color wheels, or some such user-interface widget that will allow them to express multiple axes of sentiment?

No. Experienced user-experience practitioners will see right away that there’s something of a Catch-22 laying in wait here for the unwary, in that given how dynamic social feeling is seen to be, any system supple enough to model the actual range of affinities and sentiments found in life would be an extraordinary hassle for its users. Imagine having to update your feelings about everyone you know in three axes, in anything approaching real time! The idea is – hopefully self-evidently, but it must be said that the experience of my years in technology gives me pause – a non-starter.

Finally, all of these reservations, as strong and as heartfelt as they are, do not in the end even begin to address my single most important problem with social-networking systems, which is that social comfort and coherence require that by far the majority of actual feelings regarding the people in our lives not be made explicit. In my experience, any degree of smooth and compassionate human concourse absolutely requires plausible deniability, and a certain degree of dissembling regarding your actual, operative feelings for the people you’re engaged with, however much you love them. (Depending on context, that degree may even be greater the more you care about them.) By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand that this is very much a minority opinion, and one which will not carry the day. But neither is it simply the knee-jerk, reactionary rejection of technology; I see it as a demand, rather, that we use information technology for the things it’s good at, and keep it far, far from the things it damages at first touch. I feel far too strongly about my friends and about the experiences we’ve shared, and which I cherish, to submit any of them to the idiot regime of social networking as it is currently understood.

60 responses to “Antisocial networking”

  1. Michal Migurski says :

    Wondering whether the particular case of Facebook is an example of a social network appropriate only for its initial audience. I can see how a simple friend/no-friend distinction is completely sufficient for future-focused college kids who may not yet possess the dense layers of memory, nostalgia, regret, and inhibition that drive adult relationships. I can also see how opening the gates to grown-ups leads to the impedance mismatch you describe in this post. The only sane social network relationships I’ve seen are modeled in terms of the objects featured on that network: who gets to “see your trips” or “view your photos” is a superior description of a relationship than “friend”.

  2. Daniel Reetz says :

    “I can see how a simple friend/no-friend distinction is completely sufficient for future-focused college kids who may not yet possess the dense layers of memory, nostalgia, regret, and inhibition that drive adult relationships.”

    I think this vastly underestimates the complexity and quality of relationships in younger people.

    Appreciated this post, Mr. Greenfield.

  3. AG says :

    “Mr. Greenfield” is my dad, Daniel. But glad you appreciated it. : . )

  4. maetl.coretxt.net.nz says :

    […] Antisocial Networking couldn’t have popped up at a better time for me, as I was actually sitting here, struggling with nascent suspicions about the nature of the XFN microformat […]

  5. maetl says :

    @mike: If the friend/no-friend distinction is sufficient, than why do so many kids sign up for various services under multiple accounts, discarding old ones, and making secret new ones? Since Facebook has taken design steps to stop this occurring, and yet is so popular now, you might actually be right about ‘future focused college kids’, which to me is a sad indictment of the vacuous and hollow nature of the western education system.

    @AG: Thanks for making this clear. Real social values and intimacy do not map at all well to XFN, and having to manually annotate relationships just doesn’t seem to fit the activity oriented mechanics of most “social networks”… Totally know what you mean here by “nice”… in practice, it just feels… icky…

  6. Michal Migurski says :

    @maetl, how is a future focus indicative of a problem in our education system? Seems like a feature to me.

  7. martian77 says :

    I think you raise some incredibly valid points. I resisted Facebook for quite a long time, but succumbed whilst remaining ambivalent. Now I have to be very wary of what I post where, and photos from events and groups I can normally keep quite separate can suddenly cross-pollinate in all sorts of unexpected (and potentially undesirable) ways.

    And that’s before we get anywhere near employers.

    Having said that, it has enabled me to catch up with some friends I’d lost. I guess the question that remains is why I had lost touch with them in the first place?

  8. Jamie says :

    See Nietzsche’s discussion in _Human, All Too Human_, section 376, about how each friendship involves “pebbles” that must not be touched, lest they be set rolling, with consequences fatal for the friendship. Derrida, in his _Politics of Friendship_, discusses this section, and how friendship is preserved by an ambiguity and a silence, in order to resist a slide towards vertigo and “abyssal bottomless depths.” Navigation of these issues were/are all fascinating & vexing enough in the pre- and non-digital realm. New, complexifying layers have now been added.

  9. AG says :

    And Nietzsche would know a thing or two about pebbles! (We know that anti-Semitism was the unmentionable of his relationship with the Wagners, but I’ve always wondered what set Lou Andreas-Salome to flight.)

    It’s a point almost impossible to overemphasize, and yet one to which contemporary developers seem entirely oblivious.

    I do want to mention, at this juncture, that I do agree with Mike’s point about object-mediated relationships. IIRC our pal Jyri Engestrom did some thinking around these issues a few years back, and I remember thinking that his was a sensible take; to this day, as well, Flickr and Dopplr, each with discrete social pivots, are the only applications with social functionality I’ve ever enjoyed over the longer term. And even those have occasionally caused problems for me.

  10. Christopher Fahey says :

    Web-based Social Networks are toys. You sign up and you play with them. The profile-building and friend-accumulating is idle but undeniable fun. The social web sites are ephemeral centers of gravity around which people glom for a spell, only to move on when the scene burns itself out. If you see the networks in this light, as most users of them do (whether they realize it or not), you can have a healthy good time with them.

    I don’t mean “toys” to suggest that they are useless or childish — toys and games are powerful instruments of real social connectiveness. But they’re intended to be fun and fleeting.

    People who see them as more than that, who feel they need to invest their identity in them and desire to make the game go on forever through “portable social networking”, are indeed going to be perpetually frustrated by them. They sound like people who get pissed off when they find out that the trendy shoes they bought went out of fashion a year later, and what they want is a pair of shoes that automatically stays in fashion every year. Duh.

    AG, there are indeed many models and structures for friendship and relationships, and it’s futile if not harmful to try to capture or manage them in data. To me, my web social network relationships are not replacements for, or even a representation of, my real world relationships. It’s a reflection only of my engagement with the social networking toy itself.

  11. igj says :

    Hear, hear! And I wish I could have articulated my feelings on this topic so succinctly. Frankly, I am also tired of having my criticisms dismissed because I am, ‘too old to get it.’

  12. ttrentham says :

    My reaction to this post is similar to Christopher’s.

    These services can’t possibly model the sorts of social interactions that you’re talking about and I don’t expect them to do so. I think most of us simply accept the limitations of the system and participate as long as the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. For me, Twitter and Flickr provide enough positives to make me want to participate while I avoid Facebook and MySpace (though I find myself dragged into them at times). I should add that in my hobby / side career as a musician, MySpace has been invaluable, however.

  13. theinfonaut says :

    Thanks Adam for writing this! You are not in the minority, but few people have been as articulate as you about the implications of social-networking. I’ve had my own experience with trying to tame the social-networking beast. While trying to convince my team to avoid an explicit relationship feature I found it hard to explain the implications on our site getsatisfaction.com. I wish this article was written before that time! The model I’m working on is the one Mike points out, an object-mediated network (and even that is a slippery slope).

    Christopher, you’re totally right that most of these sites are just toys, but I think Adam brings up these points because as he mentions in the beginning “There is an increasing demand that the urban-computing applications and other situated services I do care about incorporate a social-networking element”. I would be curious to know why there is this demand.

  14. Mitsu says :

    This is the truth, plain and simple. I’m in the demographic where most of my peers spend lots of time on Facebook, but I tire of it really easily. I also stopped using it, due to the fact that if you had less than 100 “friends”,it made you seem like a loser. I’m way past those high school days, and to me, friends are people I actually talk to and hang out with, not whoever I add to my profile.

  15. AG says :

    [I]f you had less than 100 “friends,” it made you seem like a loser.

    See, that’s the crux of my hostility to social networking right there. Everyone arguing that people don’t use these frameworks to model real communities needs to reread that line – really, to burn it into your memory.

    Because – thank you, Mitsu! – people obviously do understand these software-based social representations to mean something actual. The social application is, for a great many of its users, simply the reification of a state in the world. It has a weight and a value. And here’s the point: that reification often hurts.

    In this case, it hurts not merely because it’s made friendship into a competition, which would be quite bad enough already, but because it’s allowed an arbitrary and thoroughly ridiculous threshold of popularity to be articulated. And then, of course, every member of a given community gets measured against that yardstick whether they want to be or not.

    You think this doesn’t color the judgments of us that people make, even in adult contexts? I’ve actually heard someone express surprise at the fact that I “only” had 50 contacts on Twitter: “I thought you had a larger audience than that.” (!) This guy utterly misread how I see and use Twitter; he applied his own lens of interpretation, and in his eyes that number somehow meant I was somehow less interesting or influential than he figured.

    If that’s so, I can only imagine what the pressure must be like for the inward-turning, bookish sixth-grader perfectly happy to claim “just” six friends, or who doesn’t choose to maintain an online social presence at all. Imagine how that colors others’ perceptions of them – what impact that must have.

    Autism, hurt and disconnection at every turn, and (as we know from user studies) so very often internalized. Bad, bad, bad. In my book, social-networking enthusiasts have a lot to answer for.

  16. maetl says :

    @m – sorry for any dissonance my comments implied; what I meant was that 18-21 is probably the worst time in ones life to have a ‘future focus’, if what that means is stepping onto the educational conveyer belt and resigning ones life to a generic career template before even having the opportunity to experience life and learn how to learn. If kids are happy with that, far be it from me to judge.

    Perhaps a lot of the potential for hurt and disconnection is not only the simplistic friend/not-friend distinction, but because these sites really do go out of their way to put a strong visual emphasis on the “number of friends” score.

  17. Even says :

    AG: Autism, hurt and disconnection at every turn, and (as we know from user studies) so very often internalized. Bad, bad, bad. In my book, social-networking enthusiasts have a lot to answer for.

    I think this is the point where I either stand up and formulate a reply, or prepare to be chased from the village at the business end of the proverbial ten-foot pole.

    Firstly though, you are not alone in feeling a slight unease at the recent growth of a certain social network of Ivy League origins with aspirations to reduce the planet’s intricately woven social fabric to a monochrome, unified social graph through which we may exchange vampire bites and a mumbled choir of sweet nothings until the planet melts.

    But anyways, as I’ve spent the past few years building services where people may maintain explicit social relations I seem called on to answer for some evil done.

    I think my greatest problem with the ‘social networks bad, no social networks best, contextual situated social networks maybe ok’ contention is that it seems, how should I put this, somewhat lacking in nuance.

    Abstraction will be useful and we often benefit from simplifications carried out by many processes. I am fairly certain a blanket argument could be made against theatre for its failure to be anything but a bleak imitation of life itself, but I am uncertain how effective it would be. However grotesque we may find the mapping between social relations of real life humans and joined database columns, we do need to look at what use social networks are actually being put to in different services. Most often the network simply eases the dissemination of information. Take the probable assumption that the actions of those with whom you share any bond, will be, in average, more relevant to you than the actions of others and put it to work in a system where the primary focus of activity is getting your pictures, bookmarks or sweet nothings to those benefiting the most from them and it this works rather nicely. It goes without saying that this gets a lot better if the network is adapted to the activity (Fishing with the bowling team? Never!), but mildly innacurate static connections go a long way to smoothing the process of getting my Flickr pictures to my mother and others I care about. The network is a simple conduit through which stuff may float for perusal or closer examination. In a sense sites using social networks provide what the cogsci crowd would call a complementary strategy in helping us remember, in their clumsy way, who should be seeing what. It’s cognitive offloading to artefacts and given the effort we use in maintaining logistics of social worlds even a partial, deficient strategy is helpful.

    And even though I hate to look technologically determinist we do seem to be moving towards systems of dynamic publishing that know certain things about us and what we’re trying to say. Social proximity is but only one strategy, one axis of relevance. Others may for example be popularity, physical proximity and weighted permutations of the above (finding more axes and cool permutations left as an exercise to the reader :). Services which give citizens a way of reaching different audiences through such strategies may define publics which are meaningful in terms of carrying relevant discourse. The double trend of everyone moving online and the online being available everywhere which has given us social networks with real world contacts (not feasible for many before 2002, right?), will no doubt soon see whole communities being available for each other online. If we can find ways of offering structured meeting places for collaboration, agitation and inspired conversation where noise is managed through relevance criteria, we may be carrying out work of great signficance. It is difficult to imagine how such a service would be less useful if it knew nothing of the social.

    The completely stifling aspect of our Ivy League friend though is that it insists on the absolute primacy of social relevance. If the purpose of the network is the network itself a number of rather sinister things happen. If your network position and status is portrayed in the system’s montage as the salient aspect of ‘you’ there is no reason expend effort on what and how you are saying, uttering. Further, if utterances are percieved only through their social function their quality will also be subordinated to their judged intimacy. But worse: as the illusion that we are all ‘friends’ would shatter in the face of genuine intimacy we are reduced to swapping phatic tokens of friendship much in the same way you say ‘hello’ when answering the phone. Similarly this emphasis also does away with meaningful publics as each POV is uniquely held by each individual. And yes, most of these problems are just compounded as the network devaules through expansion.

    Sure, bad bad bad, but as mentioned there are other possible ways of using social networks and relevance. The most inspiring moments I have yet had as a tinkerer and maker of stuff is to see an environment filled with actions of others that exceed the admittedly utopian and abstract ideals which informed the design in the first place. Many strategies are often at work and the fact that a prominent one is social proximity cannot be reason to dismiss something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rather it is but a tool carrying all the usual ethical dimensions.

  18. AG says :

    HAHAHAHAHA….that’s right. See, Even, I’m more than willing to take your perspective with the seriousness it deserves, because you’ve actually felt the pain. I’ve heard, both directly from you and at second-hand, just how much time and care you devote to the maintenance of the fragile/resilient social web you’ve brought into being.

    I might suggest two things, though.

    I bet – and you seem to acknowledge this – that what you’ve forged is in fact a “contextual situated social network.” It may be at the outer margins of scope for any such thing, but the size and scale of Oslo allows you to get away with something that might not be the case otherwise – correct me if I’ve misunderstood. And I think that changes the nature of the beast, in ways that smooth most of my fears.

    Not all of them, though. For one, I’m still deeply uncomfortable with the declarative thing.

    It’s as if someone read Milgram and Granovetter and maybe a couple of the circa-1997 books on network theory, and said to themselves, hmmm – in the wild, people can be observed to have strong social connections and weak ones. Let’s build a system to represent that! It’s always struck me as the weirdest sort of concrete reification of something ineffable, and as terribly misguided.

    The reason I don’t fall back to my typical, reasonably relaxed social-constructionist posture and accommodate myself to social networking as “a tool carrying all the usual ethical dimensions” is because such systems routinely – inevitably – violate my very first principle of ubiquitous systems. They cause psychic harm.

    How? We’ve seen some of the ways in this very thread:

    – They tend to reframe the entire question of popularity, and whether a person feels comfortable with the amount and strength of social connections they enjoy, into an explicit (and generally prominently displayed) numbers game, in which they’re implicated whether they want to be or not.

    – In models that do permit some kind of taxonomy of connection, there is an inherent impedance mismatch (Mike’s phrase, and a great one) between the way two parties understand the crucial terms that are seen to characterize their relationship, which is bound to lead to misunderstanding. What happens when Alice considers Bob a “friend” and he only sets her access to “contact”?

    – In models that do not – i.e., Facebook-style systems where one is either a friend or not a friend – there is no recognition of the fact that we have different sorts of connections for different reasons, and presumably and validly wish to share different versions of our self with each.

    – Finally, some services strongly construct connection as instrumental, in a way that’s deeply offensive to me. Of the better-known services, LinkedIn is by far the worst offender in this regard.

    Here’s an example: although I don’t believe they do things quite this way anymore, LinkedIn used to funnel requests for connection through a social gatekeeper. Since I had a very well-known social connector/venture capitalist in my immediate network, I would get multiple requests every single day for an introduction to him. These people had no inherent interest in me, and no consideration for what impact this might have on my relationship with the person in question; they merely wanted access to him and saw me as the quickest route to that. It was grotesque.

    I don’t mean to park all these issues at your door. Some of them can almost certainly be massaged through good design – but neither do I think any of them are going away. And they’re reason enough for me, anyway, to reject the proposition entirely.

  19. Even says :

    Exactly the laugh I was hoping for! And whoa, that’s a pile of problem we’ve got here.

    I suspect that attempting to qualify social bonds will just dig us a deeper pit.

    Facebook has attempted to type the social relation along all thinkable and invasive, axes (studied with n from 1994-1997, boyfriend of m 2001-2005), but this isn’t actually reflected in actual usage and is mostly used as entertainment (and self initiated micro surveillance).

    And it really feels like bringing this information to bear properly in communication has all the trappings of an AI problem. Slippery like language, neh? And as you point out, relations are in flux over time. And worse, they are also context dependent (along with my performance of roles). It would seem that to accurately model communication and social networks in silico would be both extremely tedious in terms of data entry and would need semi-sentient server farms.

    But again I think most of the problems you raise are most problematic for services where the network’s primary value referent is the network itself. Places like LinkedIn Relationships Matter and Facebook The Social Utility. You mention our little project and you have to trust me on this: when the focus is on commonly held public objects and the social network simply enables the flow of information it becomes much less menacing. It aids you in finding out what your friends are talking about and what they are up to.

    I also suspect you are overstating the damage done as opposed to the benefits gained. And here I suspect we may really disagree. Of course: an unreciprocated social action may in some circumstances feel completely catastrophical, but mostly it is an annoyance. And more importantly it is a situation we are well acquainted with and are mostly well equipped to deal with. In building spaces for sharing and collaboration there is no way to insulate someone completely from pain, whatever the underlying data model. I can use this very text box to reify negative power structures and inflict hurt. But I see what you are saying. A service based around the value of social bonds in and of themselves may seem a hollow numbers game which simple amplifies inequalities. Or hold up, do they really?

    And I do think your LinkedIn example is good example of something bad. But isn’t it really an example of design gone wrong? Does a lopsided three legged chair with one armrest disqualify chairs, or just the chairmaker? Getting the ergonomy of social software right has everything to do with social comfort and overzealous engineering so easily gets so easily in the way (like how Orkut thought it was a really good idea to put a grid of sexual turn-ons as check boxes next to your CV).

    But I’m fairly certain that the inward gazing tautological social network is as Christopher says, a toy. Like Six Degrees anno 1996, a recently unboxed something designed in California or a Yo-Yoish Hula Hoop of the mid 2000s. But I don’t think social aspects of software introduced to the many in the past years will fade, but rather, and I know you hate the idea, gently bleed over and fade into infrastructure. And all this is written at the end of a long day of building something which models official roles and organizations, groups, geographic promximity, publics as defined by the geographic coverage of local newspapers and a host of other things like the internet domains all this stuff shows up on. And again the social doesn’t feel like an overriding concern. It’s just there helping you get your stuff seen by those who may be most interested.

    In case you haven’t come across him before: I think current spate of social network centric services seem to draw more on Moreno which predate Granovetter and Milgram by a good 30 years. Milgram had this grrreat artistic streak and wry sense of humour while Granovetter was preoccupied with the messy business of real information flows. Moreno on the other hand came up with the neato idea of drawing graphs of social relations and founded social network analysis. A rather antiseptic business:

    Moreno’s chief innovation was to devise the ‘sociogram’ as a way of representing the formal properties of social configurations. The latter could be represented in diagrams analogous to those of spatial geometry, with individuals represented by ‘points’ and their social relationships to one another by ‘lines’. This idea is now so well established and taken for granted that its novelty in the 1930s is difficult to appreciate. Before Moreno, people had spoken of ‘webs’ of connection, the ‘social fabric’ and, on occasion, of ‘networks’ of relations, but no one had attempted to systematize this metaphor into an analytical diagram.

    From here and a sample).

  20. nick sweeney says :

    Every new iteration of YASNS forces me to think again about what made LambdaMOO such a compelling space during its heyday. The pseudonymity? The openness? The text-based environment? The relatively small scale? The fact that you rarely encountered ‘real-world’ friends and contacts?

    I can’t say for sure. But it still feels more ‘net-native’ than the waves of web-native services, just as it felt more net-native in ’97, back when Carl Steadman became everyone’s friend on SixDegrees. The same with private mailing lists that have grown and morphed over the past decade.

    The crux of this discussion, I suppose, is whether it’s possible to postulate an end point at which SNSes are sufficiently sophisticated to get past their tendency for ‘owie!’ moments. If so, then the current massive human experiment is at least not some nasty joke at the users’ expense. That still makes them guinea pigs.

    There are reasons, though, to think that social relationships resist programmatic representation, or at very least, are best discerned from the gaps between stable data points.

  21. Br. Joseph says :

    AG – If you have not read it, I highly recommend Martin Burber’s influential book called I-Thou. He describes the differences between how people relate to each other.

    There is the I-It level where most people operate, even in relations with other people. “Its” are things–people or objects to be used or manipulated. The personal connection can vary upon a scale of attachments, i.e. very fond of to indifferent to dislike. I-It are real relationships, but they remain on the surface.

    I-Thou level is a deeper connection between persons that requires freedom for and from both to accept and to be themselves. It is an honest and true giving and receiving of each other. I-Thou is a real-time, live-in-the-moment relationship. (The tricky part about an I-Thou relationship is that it slips in and out of I-Thou and I-It because even the memory of such an I-Thou experience becomes an object, an It to manipulated in the mind.)

    I-It is always to oriented, that is, there is a direction in the relationship, I to it or it to me. I-Thou is with oriented, that is, an us-ness about the relationship.

    The transfer of data and information is a property of I-It relationships, and this is basically what I see social network services providing, that is, a system to collect and trade things, i.e. friends, contacts, links, comments, posts, likes/dislikes, etc. There is no true sense of with-ness provided, even within the superfical grouping mechanicisms used by these services.

    Sure, people are represented by these data objects, but the connection is superficial, at least in terms of what is seen on the computer screen by other people (definitely not by the individual member). It is analogous to the way many people drive–they see cars as objects in their way and do not always view the driver as a person.

    It is hard enough in daily life to relate with people on an I-Thou level. It is impossible, or nearly so, on the internet.

  22. AG says :

    Heh…I haven’t read Buber since college. His schema may well have been floating somewhere in the back of my mind while thinking about these things.

    I actually don’t believe digitally-mediated relationships with attributes Buber would have assigned to his “I-Thou” category are impossible. I do believe that the chances for any such a thing’s survival are vastly, vastly enhanced by the prior existence of some sustained real-world social engagement.

    To cite just one example, I don’t accept Twitter connection requests from anyone with whom I haven’t had, and enjoyed, at least one or two real-life beers, or equivalent. That seems to work fairly well as a threshold: in almost a year, I have very rarely had to flip the bozo bit on anyone there, while not a few times I’ve felt some genuine glow of shared warmth leak through whatever aperture those 140 characters afford us.

  23. Luke says :

    I say we just kill the whole “friend” metaphor on social networks and just call it “acquaintance”.

    That’s what ‘friend’ has come to mean on social netoworks for many of us, anyway.

  24. Burak says :

    In my opinion, there are some important facts about social networking.
    They keep collecting information in every detail they can.Privacy is beeing harrassed and damaged, and in the near future people can face with really serious problems… (not just simple spams, more serious than that)

    Check out this article what I mean is really clear :

    http://www.buraak.org/2008/09/16/is-your-information-safe-with-social-networks/

  25. AGC says :

    You are absolutely right on, and I think your opinions are more widely shared and understood than you might think.

    People so very often publicly side with what they think are majority opinions, but privately know what’s up. I think most people sense there is something very wrong here.

  26. Candy says :

    Hey Adam! I hear your doubts, but I don’t think anyone cares about friend counts or how close you are to which people (which I’d hate to categorize). That naturally comes out of the way you use it – to keep better touch with the people you care about (and easily ignore the ones you don’t).

    One glance at my main feed and I’m all up in interesting articles, videos, and other links that are posted by friends and people-I-don’t-even-know-but-have-shared-interests. I can quickly see what my friends are up to and one-sentence replies are all it takes to suddenly maintain connections with a ton of people you’re into but would never bother emailing.

    And it’s the reason why, just yesterday, I checked out a TED video on economics, listened to a podcast on chimpanzees in the entertainment industry, and found out Kraftwerk is playing in Helsinki! See the good times you’re missing?!

    • AG says :

      Well, that sounds pretty wonderful, when you’re inclined to bathe in a firehose-stream of incoming information.

      But what about those times when you’re not so inclined? Or when you simply want to consider something in depth, uninterrupted by a constant stream of pings and alerts and claims on your time?

      I also think you dismiss the concerns about friend counts too easily: if you read through the comments above, even, you can that these UI artifacts are already being used as sticks to beat people with, and that’s just unacceptable. A good first step toward making SNS more humane would be to suppress friend counts so that they remained to invisible to anybody but the logged-in user.

      It’s been over a year since I wrote this piece, and I find that there’s very little in it I would change. I certainly don’t feel any poorer for not having a Facebook account – and in some ways much richer. What I don’t get is the messianic need of people who love love love Facebook to try and sell me on its virtues – it smacks of suppressed buyer’s remorse, and the need to rope others into the arrangements one has made so as not to feel quite so sheepish about their constraints.

      I’m not pointing the finger at you, necessarily, but I must hear some version of this two or three times a week. So I’ll turn the question around and ask: why is my non-use of Facebook seemingly so threatening to people who insist that they’re enjoying themselves?

  27. Nicola says :

    Thank you. I read this after reading your recent interview post and so relevant today – its really helpful to have these concerns so well articulated and it is so difficult to find sane comments regarding usage of so-called social media, conversations and connections.

  28. Tim Maly says :

    It seems to me that the problems with social networking that you identify in the first half of this post are solved by what you describe in the second half, which is that most of the feelings we have toward others are not (and should not) be made explicit. Any sane user works around the fact that social networking sites don’t allow fine grained control of levels of access and intimacy by refusing to use them for that purpose. I don’t need Facebook to track my realtime feelings towards each of my friends and acquaintances because I don’t use it that way.

    Anyone using, like, the “Notes” feature in Facebook to post thoughts and feelings that they only want some of their closest friends to read is doing it wrong.

    I say all of this because my lived experience with social networking sites (I’ve only used Livejournal and Facebook (and I guess Twitter)) seems so far off from what you worry about. My far flung friends seems to mostly use them for sharing links, events and photos and letting each other know when we might be in each other’s hometown. Plus the general social grunting of commenting on one another’s status updates and the like.

    Maybe we’re not representative. Maybe most users are obsessively counting the number of friends they have, oversharing their personal stories and vainly trying to keep their ‘best friends’ list current. Maybe my understanding of your post was clouded by your opening declaration that you don’t actually use the services. But I can’t help but feel like your criticism would be a lot more informed if you understood how people actually use the software instead of berating it from first principles that social networking sites were never meant to address in the first place.

    They are for staying in touch with people, not for modelling and recording the minutiae of day to day feeling matrices.

    • AG says :

      That’s how you use them, Tim, and that’s fine. FWIW, which isn’t much, I’ve since become a Facebook user – long story – and that’s how I use it too.

      But I get quite a lot of mail about this post, and two-thirds of it breaks my heart, because it’s precisely about how artifacts like friend counts are used as weapons.

      You may remember, anyway, that my critique is directed at social networking sites “as currently instantiated.” It’s not out of the question to me that designers sensitive to the genuine pain bad design decisions causes might be able to craft something capable of fulfilling your requirements without underwriting the less felicitous uses.

    • Tim Maly says :

      That IS heartbreaking. I wonder how the numbers shake out in the full userbase. Are those 2/3rds who write you representative? Or are they a (tragic) minority with really awful friends? I know that I’m veering into “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” territory here.

      One of the suggestions that you raise, being to suppress things like friend count etc (or make it private to the user) is probably a good step. I know that I’ve made heavy use of the “show me more / show me less” feature and I’m glad that the people in my life don’t know who is on which list.

    • AG says :

      Are they representative? I don’t know. They do tend to be on the younger side – high school, junior high.

      I know I had huge issues with socialization in 7th and 8th grade, and I can all too vividly remember what it’s like. The pain that bleeds through in some of the mail is hard to take, and sobering.

      Kids have always harassed, ostracized, ijime’d and bullied each other, and they probably always will; I’m not blaming mySpace et al. for that. I am arguing that a decent amount of harm reduction could be achieved if we were less autistic in the way we design these environments.

  29. Brenda says :

    Adam, you are right, right, right. Hopefully saner heads will prevail.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. hauntedcastle.org - 9 December 2007
  2. Bird Labs - 11 December 2007
  3. Institute for the Networked Future - 12 December 2007
  4. Adam Crowe - 16 December 2007
  5. Kaulout - 17 December 2007
  6. Infovore - 20 December 2007
  7. no sense of place - 21 December 2007
  8. a work on process - 25 December 2007
  9. Open Parenthesis - 27 December 2007
  10. Like It Matters - 9 January 2008
  11. adaptive path - 9 January 2008
  12. Gary Andrews - 14 January 2008
  13. Jacquie Phelan's Weblog - 29 January 2008
  14. St. Paul’s Reach - 29 January 2008
  15. Torsten’s weblog - 14 February 2008
  16. Bedroomation - 7 April 2008
  17. Glue - Own Your Identity - 16 April 2008
  18. Three discussions that rocked my weekend - 28 April 2008
  19. Juan Freire, Centro de Estudios de Medios - 27 November 2008
  20. Cynthia Perla - 29 January 2009
  21. Jaris - 3 February 2009
  22. Jeffrey Zeldman - 10 February 2009
  23. ThoughtFarmer - 21 April 2009
  24. ThoughtFarmer - 26 May 2009
  25. The #zeroklout pledge « Adam Greenfield's Speedbird - 28 November 2011
  26. On the Leakiness of Surveillance Culture, the Corporate Gaze, and What That Has To Do With the New Aesthetic | Quiet Babylon - 10 October 2012
  27. Tanya Malan: - 29 October 2012

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